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Friends’ program links generations

Emily Lavelle | Friday, January 27, 2006

When she told her family about her decision to attend Saint Mary’s College, junior Catherine Reinert began hearing stories about her grandmother’s cousin, Sister Agnes Eugene, a Holy Cross Sister who is buried at the College.

As a first-year student at Saint Mary’s, Reinert regretted she had never had the opportunity to talk to Sister Agnes about her life and experiences at Saint Mary’s. Still wanting to establish a relationship with an older member of the Saint Mary’s community, Reinert recently joined the Friends with Sisters program – and found the friendship she was looking for.

Friends with Sisters, which has been in existence for approximately 15 years, serves as a bridge between Saint Mary’s women and the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The program is designed to give students the opportunity to build lasting friendships with older members of the Saint Mary’s community. It also allows students to learn about the history of the College, said Sister Louisita Welsh, the program’s faculty advisor.

“The program that was in place when I arrived here a few years ago was called ‘Adopt a Nun,’ and was somewhat inconsistent. When I became the program director three years ago, I talked to a group of students, and they wanted to form something that had some substance to it,” Welsh said. “We recreated the program to build another connection between the sisters and the students. The intergenerational relationship was not as strong as it could have been, and we were tempted to strengthen it.”

In the fall of 2003, Welsh and a team of students advertised the newly designed Friends with Sisters program and received an overwhelming response. Reinert remembers applying for the program as a first-year student, and being turned down because the number of student applicants exceeded the number of sisters.

Approximately 110 students and 100 sisters are involved in the program this year, Welsh said. Senior Molly Ritter said she acknowledges that these members have different needs and said the core leadership team has designed the program to appeal to every member.

“Right now, the program is set up so that students and sisters are able to have one-on-one interaction,” Ritter said. “However, if a member is uncomfortable with one-on-one interaction, they can sign up to be involved in small or large group activities with other sisters and students.”

These group gatherings have included Halloween parties, Christmas caroling and “Pretzel Pizzaz” parties, which provide the sisters and students with an opportunity to interact with many members of the Saint Mary’s community at one time.

“I think the small and large group activities have really been great icebreakers for the students and sisters who aren’t comfortable meeting with each other individually,” said sophomore Lesley Weaver, who helps coordinate the events.

The majority of the members, however, prefer one on one interaction, and meet with each other individually, student coordinator Monica Lindblom said.

Lindblom was paired with Sister Leo Nella as a first-year student, and said she loved the alone time they spent together.

“It’s almost like going over to grandma’s house when you walk over to the convent,” she said. “I always had Wednesday lunch with her, and we would just sit and chit-chat, and sometimes our conversation was actually about something and other times it was about nothing. Either way, it was enjoyable.”

Reinert, who has been paired with Sister Joan Elizabeth since fall 2005, also said she enjoys the long talks they share.

“We try to meet once a week, whether that means going to Mass together, having brunch or dinner, or just sitting in a room in the convent and talking,” she said. “But no matter what we are doing, my favorite thing to do is to sit and listen to her stories. I’m an education major, and I love to listen to her talk about her experiences as a teacher.”

The students’ interest in the sisters’ stories is an aspect of the program that surprises Sister Joan Elizabeth.

“The sisters love to reminisce,” she said. “And I am so touched by the students who dedicate their time and listen, quite energetically, to these stories that the sisters tell. Even if the sister tells the same story over and over again, the student is still interested and still listens.”

It is through these stories that students are really able to learn from the sisters, Welsh said.

“As in most relationships, as you continue to grow in that relationship, you want to know the history of the other,” she said. “In our case, the student wants to know the history of the sister and her connection with Saint Mary’s. The history then, lies in that story that we often don’t take time anymore to grasp.”

Sister Joan Elizabeth said she also wants to emphasize the history of Saint Mary’s, and tries to visit the Heritage Room in the convent with her students.

“I think there’s an opportunity there for understanding the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Saint Mary’s College, and also the relationship between Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross College,” she said. “There is something to be said for tradition and heritage, and a lot of people today don’t have an opportunity to talk with someone who has the history of more than 150 years. This program offers that link to our common founder.”

The students are not the only ones that gain perspective from the program, however. Many sisters say that the students bring new energy and perspective to the sisters as well.

“[Sister Joan] loves to hear stories about what I do on a day-to-day basis, and she’s always interested what’s evolving at the College,” Reinert said. “I am her eye into campus life.”

Like Reinert, Weaver said she thinks the presence of students at the convent gives the sisters a fresh perspective.

“Sometimes [Sister Ambrose] and I don’t agree on politics or current events,” she said. “But to me, that’s a positive thing, because it brings new opinions and perspective to the sisters.”

Welsh said she is glad to hear when students and sisters are able to converse about meaningful topics, even if they disagree. She said the sharing of perspectives and stories is an important aspect of the program.

“If we look together, we can see how much we can really learn from one another, and that breaks through age barrier, education, any other barrier,” she said. “If we could see the benefit of both, then that is the best of both worlds.”

Not only do the students bring fresh perspective to the convent, they also bring youth and energy, Ritter said.

“Many of the small group activities, such as the Halloween party, allow the sisters to be goofy and do things they wouldn’t normally do,” she said. “It’s also refreshing for the sisters to sit and visit with the students. I think it lightens their spirits and gives them energy themselves.”

Sister Joan Elizabeth said she cannot imagine what the convent would be like without the presence and energy of the students.

“I think of the Mother Houses who don’t have this kind of opportunity with young people and I’m thinking, it must be really dead in those places,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have the energy that comes from the Saint Mary’s students.”

She is careful to add, however, that she does not think one group necessarily benefits from the program more than the other.

“It’s not one-sided. The sisters aren’t the only ones who have something to give, and it’s just not the students who have something to give, and we need to realize this and capitalize on each others’ strengths,” she said. “The more we can continue to look at ways to collaborate, and whatever intergenerational relationships we can build, the stronger the sisters will be, the stronger the students will be, and the stronger the College will be.”

To students like Reinert, the relationships and connections that have been established through Friends with Sisters are deep and irreplaceable. In a recent conversation with Sister Joan Elizabeth, Reinert realized that she had more in common with the sister than she thought – Sister Joan knew Sister Agnes Eugene, the relative Reinert had heard and wondered so much about.

“I couldn’t believe it when she told me she knew Sister Agnes,” Reinert said. “They weren’t great friends, but Sister Joan said that she knew her and that she was one of the nicest people she’d ever met. It’s neat because now I have that link to Sister Agnes that I didn’t think I would have.”

This type of connection and link to Saint Mary’s history is what the program is all about, Welsh said. She said she has known most of the sisters for many years, has been familiar with the Saint Mary’s student body for many years, and is excited about the possibilities for growth and understanding when you put the two together.

“You’ve got the bright young student, and you’ve got the bright, seasoned, faith-filled woman, and when you put those together, I don’t think you can do any better,” she said. “You can’t have a relationship that is any richer.”